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BERLIN: Germany's Social Democrats came first by a narrow margin in Sunday's national election, projected results showed, putting them in pole position to lead a government for the first time since 2005 and to end 16 years of conservative-led rule under Angela Merkel.

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were on track for 25.5% of the vote, ahead of 24.5% for Merkel's CDU/CSU conservative bloc, projections for broadcaster ARD showed, but both groups believed they could lead the next government.

The tight result, which saw the CDU/CSU slump to a post-war low for a federal election, means lengthy coalition talks will follow before a new government takes office, likely involving the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

German SPD extends lead over Merkel's conservatives before TV election debate

"This is going to be a long election evening, that is certain," the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz told jubilant supporters.

"But it is also certain that many put their cross by the SPD because they want the next chancellor of Germany to be called Olaf Scholz," he added.

Scholz, 63, would become the fourth post-war SPD chancellor after Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder. Finance minister in Merkel's awkward ruling "grand coalition", he is a former mayor of Hamburg, where Merkel and Schmidt were both born.

Scholz's main rival, conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, said the election was "a neck and neck" race and signalled the conservatives were not ready yet to concede.

"We have no clear final result, no certain numbers... We will do everything to form a conservative-led government, because Germany needs a future-oriented coalition that modernises our country," Laschet, 60, told subdued supporters.

Attention will now shift to informal discussions followed by more formal coalition negotiations which could take months, leaving Merkel in charge in a caretaker role.

Germany's Laschet under pressure as final election debate nears

"This will be all about striking deals among multiple players, and several options seem possible," said Carsten Nickel at Teneo, a political risk consultancy. "The talks could take some time."

ERA-CHANGING ELECTION

Merkel plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe's largest economy.

She has stood large on the European stage almost since taking office in 2005 - when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister. "This has been a once-in-generation election," said senior Greens lawmaker Katrin Goering-Eckardt.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin's allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like. A row between Washington and Paris over a deal for Australia to buy U.S. instead of French submarines has put Germany in an awkward spot between allies, but also gives Berlin the chance to help heal relations and rethink their common stance on China.

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